Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The American Scholar, Part Two

I have been trying to do some thinking about thinking itself. The justification for what must seem to many to be a bizarre sort of navel-gazing lies in my belief, stimulated by the observations of Hannah Arendt, that good citizenship requires thinking, a habit of stepping back from the fray of daily life and examining things, and the skill to pull that off. I have the sense that this sort of citizenship is in short supply today, even in the professions where one would otherwise find thoughtful people (law, for example). So, what is meant by "thinking" in this civic sense? What does it require? What is it "about"? What consequences does it have? These are not easy questions.

In "The Humanistic Intellectual: Eleven Theses," Richard Rorty draws a distinction between two sorts of intellectuals. The first sort are "busy conforming to well-understood criteria for making contributions to knowledge." They are engaged in what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science." They are caught up in carrying out narrowly defined research programs, and they rarely ask "big" questions. As I have argued previously, though these intellectuals may be "thinking" in the technical, instrumental sense, they are not thinking in the broad, "out of order" sense Hannah Arendt believed to be essential to citizenship in a democratic republic and Ralph Waldo Emerson considered central to the mission of the American Scholar.

The second sort of intellectual in Rorty's scheme are people "trying to expand our moral imaginations." These people read books not in the way of Emerson's bookworm (who treats books as sacred objects in themselves and their authors as demigods), but "in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important -- either for themselves as individuals or for their society." Rorty calls these folks "humanistic intellectuals," and they are the sort of people he wants to encourage. They resemble Emerson's American Scholar, though not in every detail. Their distinctive role is to serve as teachers, as intellectual provocateurs inspiring fellow citizens to think. Humanistic intellectuals approach teaching as a process of "stirring the kids up" and their idea of research is to read a lot more books that might help them grow, to change, to become different persons. They instill in their students doubts about themselves and about their social world. They rattle the cages of the complacent. They inspire thought. They can be found scattered here and there around the campus -- though they are much rarer than Rorty imagines. No department or discipline has a monopoly on such characters, certainly not Rorty’s own field of philosophy; indeed, Rorty tells us, humanistic intellectuals are as likely to crop up in law schools as in the humanities or the sciences. They can be found off campus as well -- sometimes within the professions, sometimes among the rich and comfortable, sometimes even in the media -- but these social locations generally do not conduce to thinking as a vocation. 

Emerson argued that thinking demands reflection, a stepping away from daily affairs to develop ideas, a distance from the mundane issues of the day or the current "hot topics" of the political world. He is surely right about this. Thinking, as Aristotle noted long ago, requires a bracketing of the manifold commitments, obligations, impositions, and distractions of daily life; it requires at least temporary satisfaction of quotidian wants and needs, freeing one up to contemplate, to wrestle with ideas. One way of understanding Arendt's claim that thinking is "out of order" is to recognize that thinking can only occur when one steps, if only momentarily, out of the order of daily life.  

This vision helps explain why we have long tended to look for (and to find) thinkers on the college campus or in some similar haven from the storms of daily life. There is, too, a certain historical warrant for this tendency to see thinking as something that can only be done by those removed from the trials and tribulations of day-to-day affairs (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel offer examples). Of course, there is plenty wrong with the idea that the campus is an "ivory tower" removed from the worrisome and preoccupying commonplace concerns of human experience; but there is something to the idea that, at least ideally, it can provide a safe place in which intellectuals can think. Perhaps this is why some of the more interesting thinking -- though also some of the sillier forms of dilettantism along with amateurish, abstruse driveling -- can be found in law schools. [One reason to resist the trend toward more "practical" training at law schools is that it will inevitably reduce the amount of actual thinking going on, and deprive students of a chance to witness thinking in action, thus depriving them of the chance to pick up the habit themselves.]

But there are crucial differences between Emerson’s scholar on the one hand, and Rorty's humanistic intellectual or Arendt's thinking citizen on the other. Emerson not only wants his scholar to step outside daily life for a few treasured moments of thought. He contends further that the scholar can only truly pursue his vocation as a self-reliant, isolated individual who refuses to get caught up in the issues of his day and society. I think he is wrong about this. I think his self-reliant, independent scholar is a failure as a citizen, and this failure is a matter of considerable importance. And I believe Arendt and Rorty would agree.

Both Rorty and Arendt talk about thinking in a way that suggests that an important characteristic of it is what we could call an "outward orientation." For both believe that thinking should be turned back toward the issues of the day, toward one's community and one's fellow citizens. Thinking, as they see it, cannot remain a matter of mental processes inside an individual person. While it must start as consideration of things that are "good for nothing immediate," it must soon extend outward. Thinking is a matter of engaging with
where one is, with one's historicity (to use a Heideggerian term), with all those influences that make one's self into the network of beliefs and desires it is at any given time. But to so engage is not only to change oneself (recall that this is why Rorty's intellectuals read books), for after thinking one must re-enter the world, inevitably changing one's surroundings, usually in small but sometimes in great ways. The human person cannot sequester himself away from the world for long, isolated from the cascading set of relationships in which he is enmeshed -- relationships with the world, with one's people, with the political system and governmental system (they are not the same) of one's country, with one's immediate community and one's fellow citizens. We are caught inevitably in these webs. Even Thoreau, out there on Walden Pond so intentionally alone, could not escape these relationships. We are all in positions of citizenship, though most of us are miserable citizens. And thinking, that quality that asks us to step out of our daily order, necessarily improves our citizenship, for it leads to speaking, deliberating, and acting in the world. It presages the projection of oneself back into the world, there to negotiate with others the shifting network of beliefs we create and share with them.   

Emerson seems to have imagined that our nation would fulfill its destiny if only there were enough thoroughly autonomous individuals out there thinking and improving themselves. Thoreau insisted famously in his essay on "Civil Disobedience," that "[i]t is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support." But neither Emerson nor Thoreau could quite live up to this ideal of pure aloofness. Both felt the need to write about their thoughts, to share those thoughts with their fellow citizens. Emerson traveled around the country giving lectures; he did not hide in his study in Concord, lost in thought. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes as a way to demonstrate his opposition to slavery and the Mexican War -- and then wrote about his reasons, making them public, stepping into the public arena to address his fellow citizens. Even these non-political men, believing firmly that the purpose of thought was to improve oneself no matter what the society may be doing, could not avoid the relationships in which citizens exist.   

So Rorty and Arendt are onto something. Social detachment of the sort Emerson praises is not really possible for long, and so can constitute an ideal toward which to strive in only a muted and uncertain sense. I think Emerson was wrong to think the society would be better off were there more isolated American Scholars around. Encouraging isolation carries the risk that more and more citizens will eschew the public realm, leaving it to the vain, the ambitious, the crass, the power-hungry. It is more likely that isolation will take the form of self-involvement, self-interest, a focus solely on one's own mundane betterment, and one's own entertainment -- to a society of viewers rather than public actors, a society where isolation becomes the locus not of thinking but of passivity and of what Robert Putnam colorfully referred to as "bowling alone." Isolation rarely leads to thinking and re-engagement with others; it just leads to deeper isolation or shallower contact with fellow isolates. As Putnam has argued, we have seen far too much of this kind of isolation already in the United States and it is at least partially responsible for the sad situation of our democratic republic at this moment. 

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